The Slippery Reality of Kennedy’s Assassination. A Review of Don DeLillo’s Libra

Libra is a fictional reconstruction of events leading up to and after the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, the man alleged to have assassinated him. Both deaths were equal parts mysterious and sordid.

In twenty seconds that stunned the country, Kennedy, a leader who captivated America during a tumultuous time in her history, was seen on television waving to the crowds in Dealey Plaza one moment and collapsing into his wife’s lap, brains blown out, the next. Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin who shot the President from the Texas School Book Depository building, fled on foot after the act. He killed a police officer with a .38 gun before rushing into a cinema hall, where he was arrested after a brief scuffle. Two days later, Oswald himself was killed by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, to avenge Kennedy’s death. After he was imprisoned, Ruby tried to kill himself twice and died of cancer while waiting for a retrial.

A series of deaths followed, as people, among them former FBI agents and mafia overlords, named in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s investigation report died of “mysterious” natural causes or were murdered within less than five years after the incident.

More than 50 years later, the official account of Kennedy’s assassination remains controversial. In a BBC documentary to accompany this book, Delillo said that JFK’s death produced a rumble that has gathered motion over the years, “There is a sense of danger, something unraveling,” he says. “We (Americans) lost a narrative thread. The assassination…made everything plausible, left us susceptible to the most incredible ideas and fantasies.”

Lee Oswald claimed that he was a “patsy” (or set up for the crime) for a larger syndicate. In the media, there are conflicting accounts of his personality and marksmanship. He is an ace shooter and lone ranger with sympathies for Cuba’s emerging communist state in one. In another, he is a cog in the wheel of a giant machine set to up to accomplish the assassination. Then, there are charges that official reports were manipulated, that doctors who performed an autopsy on John F. Kennedy’s dead body released false reports. The trajectory of Oswald’s bullets, which passed through JFK’s neck and into then Texas Governor Connally’s thigh, add to the entire situation’s murkiness.

An Emotionally Unstable Patsy

DeLillo’s book uses fragments of multiple narratives from Nicholas Branch, a retired FBI official who is writing a definitive account of the assassination, to individual life stories of characters associated with the narrative to weave a tale.

The main thesis of Libra is that Oswald was indeed a “patsy”. Former and current officials from government agencies in the United States trailed him after he defected to the Soviet Union. They were rabidly anti-Castro and wanted revenge for the Bay of Pigs massacre. They set up events, circumstances, and people to instigate him towards an assassination.

In the book, Oswald is aware of this, his destiny. As the 24-year-old faces television cameras the day he was killed, there was “something in the look, some sly intelligence, exceedingly brief but far-reaching, a connection all but bleached away by glare tells us that he is outside the moment, watching the rest of us.” It is the same with Ruby. He tells Chief Justice Warren at the hearings that “he has been used for a purpose, that he wants to tell the truth, and leave the world.”

There are similarities in Oswald’s and Ruby’s life stories. Both come from broken homes and impoverished backgrounds. Oswald’s childhood and adolescence, in particular, is marked by a dissociation from markers of stability and identity. His father, an insurance salesman, dies early and his itinerant childhood is spent between cities and schools.

In New York City, he skips school and rides the subway from end-to-end. He is not dull; he’d begun reading about Marxism in New Orleans before the age of fifteen. “I could lift my head from a book and see the impoverishment of the masses right there in front of me, including my own mother in her struggle to raise three children against the odds.” He is emotionally unstable and prone to violent outbursts.

At the age of 17, Oswald joins the Marines and is posted to Japan, a country recovering from the ravages of the Second World War. The Asian country is where the events of Oswald’s life’s denouement begin. In between his duties as a Marine and visits to prostitutes, he establishes contact with a Russian language teacher and passes on military secrets to her in exchange for assistance in defecting to the Soviet Union. His desperation to leave the United States is illustrated by a suicide attempt in Moscow after his citizenship application is rejected.

Eventually, after a KGB interrogation, he is sent to Minsk, where he meets Marina, an orphan drawn to strangers and “people who are different”. After a whirlwind romance and courtship lasting all of six weeks, they are married. He is twenty and she nineteen. Fatherhood brings “luck” and a sort of permanence to his life.

But the situation is temporary and disillusionment soon sets in. The constant surveillance and regimentation of Soviet life grates on Oswald. An encounter with Cubans in Minsk and their idealistic aspirations for a socialist society further fans his frustrations. In the end, Lee Harvey Oswald, who gave up his country and family for Marxist ideals, makes his way back to America two years after renouncing it.

A return to America sets Oswald adrift again. Without a job and much social life (he does not get along with Russian expatriates critical of their home country), he is on the move again. In the meanwhile, federal agencies have tacked onto him and begun tracking his movements post-defection. Agent Donald Freitag from the FBI turns up one day and asks him questions about life in the Soviet Union.

Oswald’s life acquires a trajectory after he encounters a cast of characters, including an ex-FBI agent and a former pilot, who prod him towards a finale. “Simple things building up,” writes DeLillo about Oswald getting caught in a vortex of circumstances and manipulation. He orders guns using an alias and attempts to kill a right-wing ideologue. He joins Fair Play Cuba to spy for the CIA, but his political sympathies still lie with Marxist ideology. He travels to Mexico under an assumed name to apply for a visa to Cuba. It is only after he pulls the trigger (in DeLillo’s account, Oswald misses Kennedy and shoots then Texas Governor Connally instead) that Oswald realizes the consequences of his deed. “They superimposed his head on someone else’s body. Forged his name on documents. Made him a dupe of history. He would name every name, if he had to.”

A Slippery Reality

It is conceit that makes us believe that we are masters of our own destiny and narratives. Our identity in the world is shaped by stories others tell about us and the tales we tell about ourselves to them.

After reading the book, I watched a clip of Lee Harvey Oswald being presented before television cameras: slight, disheveled, and almost comical with his beaky nose and wide eyes. He seemed well-mannered and polite. Perhaps, he was, like most 24-year-old men, still figuring out his place in life? Perhaps, he took that photograph of himself with a gun in jest?. Perhaps, he was a societal outcast, who’d been brainwashed into the evils of capitalism?

There is already a wealth of material regarding conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination. While the accounts outline the broad details, they do not provide much information about Oswald’s motivations or personality. After all, regardless of the sequence of events or the logistical improbability of a bullet penetrating both Kennedy and Connally, the connective thread in this narrative is Lee Oswald himself.

Oswald does not seem to have belonged to family or friends. In DeLillo’s book, he attempts to tell his story by maintaining a “Historic Diary”, a book that provides sketches into his life in the Soviet Union but abandons the effort after contact with federal agents. You could say that the absence of a personal narrative makes Oswald was an excellent candidate to commit a crime.

DeLillo’s achievement in Libra lies in establishing a coherence to events and Oswald’s persona. DeLillo combines multiple narratives about the man and weaves his life with that of a cast of characters drawn from the Warren commission files. Among them: Guy Banister, a former FBI agent, on a mission to spread the rise of communism throughout the world. David Ferrie, a former pilot instructor out to stop the spread of Comrade Cancer. (Interestingly, Ferrie is depicted as a homosexual, a group of people banned in Stalin’s Soviet Union, in the novel). Win Everett, a former CIA operative and mastermind of the operation. In an interview with the New York Times, DeLillo said that the novel works within history and, also, outside it, “correcting, clearing up, finding balances and rhythms.”

The book’s title is a reference to the Sun Sign, a balancing of scales, an attempt to control events and reach equanimity. But that control is never reached. Individual characters break into pieces inwardly even as they remain calm and in control on the surface. The assassination itself was originally planned as a missed attempt on the President’s life in Miami. But, plans and locations change. In DeLillo’s words: Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move towards death.

Eventually Libra is about a slippery reality that is not always as it seems.

Oswald, of course, is the most prominent case. He is a complex character. He loves his wife but also beats her. He is disillusioned with Communism but still willing to sacrifice his life for Marxist Cuba. Similarly, Everett is ruthless but dotes on his daughter. Ferrie, the pilot instructor, forces himself onto Oswald during the night that they spend together.

In the book, the Libran scale tips towards destruction and confusion, one that ends up with the death of a U.S. President.

book reviews fiction

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